Friday, 5 October 2007

Relationships Don't Work - from Everyday Zen: Love & Work by Charlotte Joko Beck

I recently returned from Australia. I went there hoping to enjoy some normal weather-so the first two days it poured, which was fun. Then for the last five days of sesshin in Brisbane there was a cold gale. It was so strong that we could hardly stand up as we ran between buildings. We had to fight just to keep our balance. The wind was like a truck, roaring over the roof the whole time. Anyway, it was a good sesshin, and what I got (as I always do) is that no matter where you go, people are people: they are all wonderful and they are all troubled, as people are everywhere; and the same questions plague Australians as plague us. They have just as much difficulty with relationships as we do. So I want to talk for a few minutes about the illusions we have that relationships are going to work. See, they don't. They simply don't work. There never was a relationship that worked. You may say, "Well, why are we doing all this practice if that's true?" It's the fact that we want something to work that makes our relationships so unsatisfactory.

In a way life can work-but not coming from the standpoint that we are going to do something that will make it work. In everything we do in relation to other people, there is a subtle or not-so-subtle expectation. We think, "Somehow I'm going to figure this relationship out and make it work, and then I will get what I want." We all want something from the people we are in relationship to. None of us can say we don't want something from those we are in relationship to. And even if we avoid relationships that's another way of wanting something. So relationships just don't work.

Well, what does work then? The only thing that works (if we really practice) is a desire not to have something for myself but to support all life, including individual relationships. Now you may say, "Well, that sounds nice, I'll do that!" But nobody really wants to do that. We don't want to support others. To truly support somebody means that you give them everything and expect nothing. You might give them your time, your work, your money, anything. "If you need it, I'll give it to you." Love expects nothing. Instead of that we have these games: "I am going to communicate so our relationship will be better," which really means, "I'm going to communicate so you'll see what I want." The underlying expectation we bring to those games insures that relationships won't work. If we really see that, then a few of us will begin to understand the next step, of seeing another way of being. We may get a glimpse of it now and then: "Yes, I can do this for you, I can support your life and I expect nothing. Nothing."

There is a true story of a wife whose husband had been in Japan during the war. In Japan he lived with a Japanese woman and had a couple of children with her. He loved the Japanese woman very much. When he came home he did not tell his wife about this love. But finally, when he knew he was dying, he confessed to her the truth of the relationship and the children. At first she was very upset. But then something within her began to stir, and she worked and worked with her anguished feelings; finally, before her husband died, she said, "I will take care of them." So she went to Japan, found the young woman, and brought her and the two children back to the United States. They made a home together and the wife did all she could to teach the young woman English, to get her a job, and to help with the children. That's what love is.

A meditative practice is not some "airy-fairy" process, but a way of getting in touch with our own life. As we practice, more and more we have some idea of this other way of being, and we begin to turn away from a self-centered orientation—not to an "other-centered" orientation (because it includes ourselves), but to a totally open orientation. If our practice is not moving in that direction then it is not true practice. Whenever we want anything we know our practice has to continue. And since none of us can say other than that, it just means that for all of us our practice continues. I have been practicing a long time, yet I noticed that on this trip I just took (which was a long trip at my age, even though the sesshin was good, with strong impact on a lot of people) I was saying, "Well, it took too much out of me, I don't know if I will do it next year.

Maybe I need more rest." The human mind is like that. Like anyone else, I want to be comfortable. I like to feel good. I don't like to be tired. And you may say, "Well, what's wrong with wanting a little comfort for yourself?" There is nothing wrong with wanting it, unless it is at variance with that which is more important to me than comfort, my primary orientation in life. If that primary orientation doesn't emerge from practice, then practice isn't practice. If we know our primary orientation, it will have its effect on every phase of life, on our relationships, our work, everything. If something doesn't emerge from practice that is more than just what / want, what would make my life more pleasant, then it's not practice.

But let's not oversimplify the problem. As we sit like this, we have to develop two, three, four aspects of practice. Just to sit in strong concentration has value. But unless we are careful, we can use it to escape from life. In fact, one can use the kind of power it develops in very poor ways. Concentration is one aspect of practice; we don't emphasize it here, but that ability must be acquired at some point. The Vipassana-type practice (which I prefer) in which you notice, notice, notice, is very valuable and I think the best and most basic training. Yet it can lead to people who are (as I think I was at one time) almost totally impersonal. There was nothing I felt emotionally because I had become an observing machine. That can sometimes be a drawback of this kind of practice. There are also other ways of practicing. Each way has strengths and each way has drawbacks. And there are various psychological and therapeutic trainings which are valuable; yet they also have drawbacks. The development of a human being into what I would call a balanced, wise, compassionate person is not simple.

In a relationship, whenever we sense unease -that point where it doesn't suit us - a big question mark should shoot up as to what is going on with us. How we can practice with the unease? I am not saying that all relationships should be continued forever, because the point of a relationship has nothing to do with the relationship itself. The point of relationship is the added power that life gets in working with it as a channel. A good relationship gives life more power. If two people are strong together, then life has a more powerful channel than it has with two single people. It's almost as though a third and larger channel has been formed. That is what life is looking for. It doesn't care about whether you are "happy" in your relationship. What it is looking for is a channel, and it wants that channel to be powerful. If it's not powerful life would just as soon discard it. Life doesn't care about your relationship. It is looking for channels for its power so it can function maximally. That functioning is what you are all about; all this drama about you and him or her is of no interest to life. Life is looking for a channel and, like a strong wind, it will beat on a relationship to test it. If the relationship can't take the testing, then either the relationship needs to grow in strength so that it can take it, or it may need to dissolve so something new and fresh can emerge from the ruins. Whether it crashes or not is less important than what is learned. Many people marry, for instance, when nothing is being served by their relationship. I am not advocating that people dissolve their marriages, of course. I simply mean that we often misinterpret what marriage is about. When a relationship isn't working, it means that the partners are preoccupied with "I": "What I want is . . ." or "This isn't right for me." If there is little wanting, then the relationship is strong and it will function. That's all life is interested in. As a separate ego with your separate desires, you are of no importance to life. And all weak relationships reflect the fact that somebody wants something for himself or herself.

These are big questions I am raising, and you may not agree with everything I'm saying. Still, Zen practice is about being selfless, about realizing that one is no-self. That does not mean to be a nonentity. It means to be very strong. But to be strong does not mean to be rigid. I've heard about a way of designing houses at the beach, where big storms can flood houses: when they are flooded, the middle of the house collapses and the water, instead of taking down the whole house, just rushes through the middle and leaves the house standing. A good relationship is something like that. It has a flexible structure and a way of absorbing shocks and stresses so that it can keep its integrity, and continue to function. But when a relationship is mostly "I want," the structure will be rigid. When it is rigid, it can't take pressure from life and so it can't serve life very well. Life likes people to be flexible so it can use them for what it seeks to accomplish.

If we understand zazen and our practice we can begin to get acquainted with ourselves, and how our troublesome emotions wreak havoc with our lives. If we really practice then very slowly, over the years, strength develops. At times this is a horrendous process. If anyone tells you differently they are not telling you about real meditation. Real meditation is by no means a flowery, blissful process. But if we really do it in time we begin to know what it is we're after; we begin to see who we are. So I want you to appreciate your practice and really do it. Practice is not a trimming on your life. Practice is the foundation. If that's not there nothing else will be there. So let's keep clarifying what our practice is at this moment. And who knows, some of us might even find ourselves in a relationship that works-one that has a very, very different base. It is up to us to create that base. So let's just do that.

Relationships Don't Work - from Everyday Zen: Love & Work by Charlotte Joko Beck from Amazon com
Relationships Don't Work - from Everyday Zen: Love & Work by Charlotte Joko Beck from Amazon UK